Trend to Limit ADA and FEHA Definitions of Disability Attributed to Behavioral Disorders Affecting Work Relations?

Could there be a trend starting among the courts to put restraints on the reach of the disability discrimination laws when it comes to mental impairments affecting an employee’s ability to get along with others in the workplace? Maybe. In December of this past year, the Ninth Circuit put the brakes on its own precedent by reversing a jury finding that the employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) when it terminated an employee because of behavioral issues attributed to a mental disorder. In Weaving v. City of Hillsboro, 763 F.3d 1106 (9th Cir. 2014), an employee diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”) was terminated because of “recurring interpersonal problems” that caused workplace conflicts with the employee’s supervisors, co-workers and subordinates. Although the employee’s disruptive behavior was allegedly attributable to his ADHD, the Ninth Circuit held that his termination did not violate the ADA because the employee’s mental disorder, while making it more difficult for him to “get along” with others, “d[id] not amount to a substantial impairment of his ability to interact with others within the meaning of the ADA.” Id., at 1113.

On May 26, 2015, a California court addressed a similar issue arising out of an order granting summary judgment in favor an employer. In Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, __ Cal. Rptr.3d __, No. C073677, 2015 WL 3451590 (Cal. Ct. App. May 26, 2015), an employee who was diagnosed with a mental disorder (adjustment disorder with anxiety) alleged that because of his disorder he could not work for a particular supervisor who reportedly was abusive to the employee. Although the employee argued that under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) he was entitled to a reasonable accommodation for his disorder, the California Court of Appeal was not persuaded. The court held that the inability to work for a particular supervisor “because of anxiety and stress related to that supervisor’s standard oversight of the employee’s job performance d[id] not constitute a mental disability under FEHA.” Id., at *3.

In both of these cases, the court concluded that the mental disorder in question did not satisfy the definition of a disability under the governing law because the disorder did not rise to a level so as to “limit a major life activity.” The major life activity at issue in Weaving was the ability to engage in social interaction, while the major life activity at issue in Higgins-Williams was the ability to work. Although a different legal analysis was applied in each case when denying relief to the employee, it would appear from these cases that the state and federal courts are starting to recognize limits to the protections afforded under the disability discrimination laws when the alleged disability amounts to a behavioral disorder that impairs the plaintiff’s ability to relate to others in the workplace.

Jonathan M. Turner, founding partner at Epstein Turner Weiss in L.A. Jonathan

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